By Allyson Vaughan
I had a dream that I was burning. I was standing in a charred house made of fragments of many homes I had once lived in. A worn couch with a warped back cushion, the wood panel walls from the house I lived in for one year in fifth grade and the purple rug in the dorm room I spent the last four years of my life living in. Small, insignificant details, and the only ones I could remember upon waking. There’d been three of me; the little girl with a Scout Finch haircut I’d given myself in the first grade (still wearing a lady bug button shirt I’d once cried because I had to wear it on picture day). Then the young girl with long hair parted down the middle and too thin because I didn’t give myself what I needed as I grew in the eighth grade. And then I stood in a burning living room with them. I knew when I woke up that they were all me, but I didn’t recognize them as myself in the dream; they were just two people burning with me. And we were choking on the smoke, until we all fell down on the purple carpet, and then there were sirens telling us to hold on. I woke up with a sweaty neck and a panicked heart. But I got up and drank coffee and stared at the purple carpet I’d brought home with me after graduation that now lies on my living room floor.
I thought of the last four years of my life and the rough purple carpet Meagan, my roommate and best friend, and I spent days and nights sick, hungry, full, confused, hurt, alone, and together in our dorm room on. I thought of the expanse of my lungs as I walked to my African Lit class early on a January morning, the air so dry it stung my eyes. I hear The Beatles playing in my ears as I went, down a long and winding road with Paul and John and George and Ringo. And I thought of the tight ball of tension in my chest that grew the closer we got to being released from this oasis of freedom. College was freedom. We were free to be lost and found at the same time, given our meals, and given sheets with dates written on them. We could always expect the bad days because they were assigned for us. Lengthy papers and midterms due on days we were the most tired. And then that final day in May, when I wobbled as I stepped off the stage—a subtle stumble I felt more than anyone saw—was the final day of the cocoon I’d spent four years protected in. And now they were telling me to go, go and thrive with all they’d give me.
Even as the little girl in my dream, I held my twenties up to a glorious light. I’d make my Barbie dolls dress in well constructed, perfectly professional attire that would carry them from the office to a night out with their girlfriends where they would drink cosmos and talk smack about their boyfriends (I secretly watched Sex and The City too much as a child). I played out their triumphs as my own, but my Barbie dolls never had obstacles, not until after I started watching All My Children with my mother as she helped me with my math homework. And then Ken was leaving them for the off-brand bleached blonde Barbie bimbo I got at the Dollar General. In the months leading up to graduation I had some obstacles of my own I’d never played out with my dolls. I began my search for internships, freelance positions, and even searched for Grad schools until I realized I was too poor to jump right in to that. Being smart is expensive.
So my search regressed, I stayed practical, and after graduation I began to apply for everything LinkedIn told me I should. At one point, I applied for a glass repair company that offered me $2,000 dollars if they hired me immediately. They left me a voicemail. I did not call them back, for fear it was a front for a drug ring that would sell me for blood diamonds. Months went by, and I got no calls back from any store or business I applied to. Target sent me a rejection email, twice, so that felt great. Burger King never called me back, those royal twats. The Cheesecake Factory ignored my calls; probably because of the cover letter that was more like a love letter to cheesecake. And Bed, Bath & Beyond accidentally offered me an interview because of a computer glitch, and then ghosted me like every seventh grade boy I ever knew.
So I wasn’t exactly thriving as I’d planned. My days were the same, sitting at home trying to find jobs and wishing I were back on the floor of my dorm with a To-Do List longer than a Gwyneth Paltrow Goop recipe. I craved those days of rain streaked windows and the lingering angst we all clung to in order to keep some edge as we crossed the bridge from children to fledgling adults. My good old anxiety disorder raged, and near daily I had pains down my arm like I was having a heart attack. The smoke in my dream lingered in my chest like a phantom. I could not breathe. My brain got trained on dark thoughts that I wasn’t all that I should be, that I wasn’t doing enough or wasn’t enough. I couldn’t even decide. I thought to myself, scrolling through the final page of LinkedIn ADs one afternoon, that my Barbie Dolls never had these problems. That was the problem. I’d never thought about the hard part when I imagined where I’d be at this point in my life. It’s probably good that I didn’t, or I’d have seen how far there is to go.
I would love to be able to say I am on the other side, that I am in the AFTER portion of a success story. I did find a job, but it’s not a job I particularly saw myself doing. I work as a barista as I save money to move away for Graduate School. It’s certainly not my forever, but I am grateful to have found it, even if it is hard. I’m up at 4 AM most mornings in order to get to work by 5 AM. I’m often exhausted and I don’t have as much time to work on my writing, which sometimes drags my exhaustion down further to think about. Right now, I’m in the part of the story where people tell me “everything will be all right.” What I am doing right now is not the perfect thing, but it is the right thing. Back in May I didn’t know what I was leaving yet—I didn’t know how protected I was behind those collegiate walls. It took me four years to figure out who I was, both the good parts and the bad, and get comfortable with who that is. But on one of the first days of our training at the new coffee shop, one of the supervisors was explaining to us the area called “The Cage” where we keep our products. And she said, “If you don’t have a cage yet. You will.”
I looked up at her and wondered if that’s what I was putting myself in. But I am doing the right thing, I thought. I did what I had to. I got the first job that called me back and I would be able to pay off my student loans and save to move on someday. The someday frightens me. Back when I was still searching for a job, I was sometimes secretly happy all the Burger Kings weren’t calling me. That’s not what I want to do with my life, I thought. I wanted to be writing and learning more in a new, exciting, terrifying place once more. I’ve always been afraid of being someone who settled into what she thought had been decided for her by circumstance. I don’t want to be a victim of necessity. But for now, I tell myself, this is where I am. And I take it seriously because if I don’t then it does not mean anything.
But I won’t let anyone tell me it’s all right. It’s not all right to feel like there’s a cage to be trapped in, or that by doing what is necessary I am somehow betraying myself. It’s not all right that I’m constantly confused about myself, about the people I love, and the people I don’t. Joan Didion wrote, “I don’t know what the fear is. The fear is not for what is lost. What is lost is already in the wall. What is lost is already behind the locked doors. The fear is for what is still to be lost.” That’s the thing, I don’t know what else there is to lose. So many of my friends are in the same place, doing what we must in order to move forward. But it’s a bit like walking on wet sand, it’s slow moving and it hurts the knees after a while. I need a protein bar and a good nap at this point. Right now, the only choice we have is to keep moving blindly forward. It’s not fun to be in this stage of life; it’s hard and uncertain and there are unprecedented disappointments at every corner. We’re all gathered, together, under a jar with a flaming match thrown in. Suffocating on ourselves and the air we’re forced to breath.
The girls who were me in my dream burned away, and I’m burning now. Most days I’m sore and weary from working on my feet all day, and I do lay on that stained purple rug like I can escape the smoke rising around me. I don’t know what’s left to be lost, but I can see what I want to gain. I listen less to The Beatles right now, and more of Patti Smith and Ani DiFranco. I have a tattoo and I chopped off most of my hair a few months ago. It’s grown out some, but I can’t quite imagine what I looked like with it long anymore. That girl was a little more naïve, a little more optimistic. I take more chances now without thinking. I’m less cautious about making changes. I’m always afraid still, but I am learning to not let it stop me from doing things I want. I’ve gotten just a bit more shameless, but I still have moments of shyness. I eat my veggies and my pizza, to keep my system on its toes. Like most of my friends, I have no idea what’s going on or what I’m doing. And I have no advice for this time of life yet, except that going through the fire is all there is to do until it burns away, and then I’ll see what I’m left with.